on Differentiation Strategies

This is a summary for an #ELTchat discussion, which took place on 13 February 2019, on the topic of differentiation strategies.  It was the first chat I had taken part in since the one on 17 October on Digital Tools, for which I also wrote the summary.  It is my 15th ūüôā

This topic is particularly important to me as I am having to do this a lot with my current ESOL ‘Driving Theory’ class, which I wrote about in the chat, and an upcoming ‘Employability’ class.  There are many articles already out there about strategies for differentiation, such as this from Teacher Toolkit and this on ESOL differentiation from the British Council.  Furthermore, @fionaljp  mentioned this one from English Teaching Professional during in the chat, while  shared this post on differentiation with mixed ability classes by Barefoot TEFL Teacher in the ‘slowburn’.

Why Differentiated Instruction

“Differentiation is an important issue for many teachers these days. I have a class with spiky profiles. They range in age, ability and level of different skills, so I have to differentiate in all instructions,” stated @SueAnnan@Marisa_C wondered how much of Sue’s design caters to differences.  “90%” thought Sue. “I offer different amounts of work. Shorter reading passages etc … The preparation can be that you divide up the passage with your eyes as you hand it out, and get different groups to jigsaw read bits according to how much they can cope with,” she added.  She summarised the start of the chat as talking about classes of mixed range, ability, age etc and decided that teachers don’t want to be spending free time making stuff to differentiate too much.

@fionaljp offered that “it’s all about inclusion, isn’t it?”  “I hope my classes are inclusive. But you can still have 3 men and a dog in class, who really aren’t the same level, because its too early in the year, and you haven’t recalled your teachers yet.” answered @SueAnnan. “I‚Äôm sure they are … just meaning it can become a bit impractical,” replied @fionaljp.

@sartorious23 stated that “Differentiation might occur when teaching single-gendered classes. Lesson plans and delivery need to be adapted accordingly.” @jonjoTESOL queried this thinking. “I teach in [Saudi Arabia] where all my classes are male. Why do you say that differentiation might occur in the same-sexed classroom?” @sartorious23 responded, “My only instance [in Kuwait] is differentiation on delivery and lesson planning – not on the type and amount of activities for stronger and weaker units … For example, I had to alter my material for male and female classes, in order to provide visuals and ideas that would be closer to them … For the male class, I picked visuals that would not insult students coming from conservative families.”

“All the readings suggest differentiation in task design but often very simple things like this or choice can work best,” stated @Marisa_C.  “An extras box is also a good idea. Variety is the key – a set of laminated cards clearly colour-coded with individual or paired activities is a great idea. Their content is up to you.”

@PhilipMErasmus said that “for me differentiation comes down to: we don’t teach classes, we teach individuals.. this is the aim.”  However, “it depends on the range of ability and interest in the class and the size of the group,” responded @SueAnnan, before stating that “small changes can have big effects … Something as simple as introducing choice to a class can work wonders for morale. They think the teacher is really listening to them.”  @Marisa_C agreed, suggesting that “perhaps leave [exercises] on a table and people can choose whichever one they want – next time they might get wiser.” @jonjoTESOL also agreed with this. “I need a list of these ‘small changes’ that a teacher does that have huge implications in the classroom. No more assuming that two hours of lesson prep is an hour of lesson time,” he said.

@koomska was at a talk about this where they suggested lots of versions of same task. One idea was having answers with ‘distractors’ on back of the worksheet.  @SueAnnan replied that her “weaker students would probably go for the distractors.”. “It’s an awful lot of unnecessary work” commented @fionaljp. “That’s what people with time on their hands always suggest,” said @Marisa_C, so “why not design one task and distribute questions to different students.” @koomska didn’t disagree but stated that “interestingly the title of the talk was ‘low prep differentiation!'” 

Tony Partridge

“I can agree with the point about preparation for differentiating,” stated   “The reality of teaching often makes that tricky or more time-consuming. I like the term “low prep differentiation … What about other solutions away from prep and activities… can interaction patterns, grouping, monitoring etc help?” he asked.

“Maybe giving students different roles playing to their strengths is one way,” suggested @koomska.  

@Marisa_C replied, “More or less detailed guidelines +/- extra time / write two more items for early finishers / change the items in some way / make a key etc – all these are low maintenance ideas.”  This is a slide from a free webinar she did on this topic:

Task Differentiation

“Monitoring,” replied @teacherphili.  “I set the task at same time for all learners and spend more time checking on how the slower or less able ones are doing, as I can generally trust the more able ones to finish quicker.. at which point I check on them. But mostly peer correction using one device. With monitoring, I find more questions during a task generally come from weaker students and they need more support, clarification, checking. If I’m happy they’re making progress with partner, I’ll leave them alone for a bit and do group checking at end, although it’s often staggered.”

 replied to @TonyP_ELT, “If you have a dyslexic learners in your class, give them the reading task the lesson before you do it. Then when you language mine/do comprehension questions they won’t be disadvantaged. It’s zero-prep, apart from knowing what you’re going to do next lesson.”  She later added that “one of the simplest things to do is give a minimum target. Then you can push the faster ones to do more … If you’ve got a big long reading, split it down to do as a jigsaw, and just make sure the smaller bits go to the learners with differences. Then they all still have to do the work of summarising, but with texts that push them all appropriately.”

@Marisa_C also “likes the idea of mix n’ match ‘input modes – varying the skills and materials focus e.g. video vs image vs text vs audio or jigsawing reading just to make different students ‘shine’.”

“I think knowing your learners is important, if your teaching environment permits that. Sometimes though, you have to ‘jump into’ a teaching situation or cover a class at short notice and then have to differentiate on the spot.” stated @TonyP_ELT.

I think low prep means working with what you have, but it is possible to mix up the pairs, offer varying abilities work at their level and praise the weak ones when they manage, so they don’t feel ‘NUL’ (French for ‘stupid’ as in ‘nul points’),” stated @SueAnnan.

2019-02-15 10.40.31

A mixed nationality, mixed ability class requires differentiation.

@teacherphili stated that he has “never had to differentiate as much as I do now.  Not so much with instructions, but because of their different levels and comprehension abilities.”  The specific course is English for UK Driving Theory, with lots of driving analogies used to differentiate, such as when setting homework using a traffic light system.  @Marisa_C suggested that we need a whole toolbox of attitudes and techniques and not just think about designing two extra hours of activities for the different levels and abilities.

“It’s not just about extra materials of activities,” added @teacherphili, “but almost at every stage thinking about the different abilities and speeds the learners go at.  I have very able students who comprehend everything quickly, while others go at a snail’s pace.. although the less able ones understand it takes them forever to complete tasks & are often still doing the work while the others have left and I’m packing up. @Marisa_C replied that it “looks like a very extreme placing strategy!!! I have had this problem with ESP classes where company cutting corners but if students [are] in the same department, it’s usually not so much of a problem.” @SueAnnan said that “Cutting corners is often the reason for this. I have a class of teens 14-17. You can imagine that they need careful handling to stop boredom and lack of motivation. I’ll admit that I’m planning more carefully for them.” @teacherphili stated that he is “often spending time with ‘slower’ learners at the expense of the ‘faster’ ones. I turn around and they’ve finished and are checking their phones.. so I immediately check their answers or give them an additional task

 responded that “I hate that feeling. I feel like I could give just as much help and guidance to the more abled students but I have to help the lesser abled students. Perhaps planning extra related activities is the obvious answer here.” 

Although not explicitly mentioned by name in the chat, Geoff Petty has famously written a lot about this topic and has training materials freely available online. In a recent training session at work, @teacherphili was given the following handout, which includes improving differentiation while using the weak methods (category ‘C’)

Traffic Light system for homework

Whiteboard on 15 February

Traffic Light system for homework (photo taken on 15 February)

“I like the idea of the extra challenge – challenges (reading, listening, etc) for homework can be a really good way of dealing with the issue but my gnawing question always is – will the more motivated students accelerate to a degree that creates problems for the T?” wondered @Marisa_C. Later on, she pointed out that we often forget that teachers with very low pay rates cannot afford the extra hours of that people getting a decent salary can give to preparation. Aileen @EltManchester responded to this by saying: “Personally, I love preparing innovative materials, and in previous, well-paid ELT contexts, I have spent many happy hours preparing great materials for my students. Good for me, good for my students, good for my school. Paying teachers to do a job properly just makes sense.”


In the slowburn, @jonjoTESOL added that aforementioned link to a nice website that gives a good summary of what differentiation is for anybody who might be too shy to ask. It suggests moving up on Bloom’s Taxonomy to create more challenging tasks – “I can’t wait to try, fail, try, fail, try, then partially succeed at this,” he said. He also stated that “there is a differentiation by linguistic ability in my students – my school has a lot of lower levelled students but not a lot of higher leveled students (B1 to C1). As such, they tend to be bunched together to save on resources.”

So in summary of my 15th summary for ELTchat, my own motivation to join was to share my own recent experience.  There were a lot of ideas shared but not that many links or resources on this occasion.  It is an important topic which often comes up in observation reports and has many possible ways of doing it.  But in general, participants during this chat felt that too much time could be spent on preparation to deal with this and that teachers are not paid enough to do lots of extra planning, even if some awareness of different needs, abilities, levels etc is essential when we are in the classroom.

If you regularly take part or have taken part in #ELTchat in the past, @vickysaumell is carrying out some research into its use.  Click here to complete the survey.

Tier 1: Differentiated Instruction and Scaffolding image courtesy of  UEN instructure.com. http://bit.ly/2SSaSU3

Reference: http://geoffpetty.com/training-materials/differentiation/


English UK Conference

On 18 / 19 January, I attended the English UK Academic conference, held at Prospero House, Borough, London. I gave two talks, one of which was more of a workshop.  I was fairly apprehensive in the week leading up to it and not been particularly well. I had been experiencing daily anxiety and had just turned down work with my current employer, Norfolk County Council, because of this.

Also speaking at the conference, amongst others, were Chris Farrell, who presented on ‘burnout’, Ruth Hughes talking about positive psychology and the wellbeing on international students, Julie Moore, Vic and Silvana Richardson, James Hilton, and Anne Margaret Smith. The closing plenary came courtesy of Countdown’s lexicographer, Susie Dent, who I previously bumped into in an elevator at the ELTons 2017.

first slide

On Friday, the audience was mostly ELT managers.¬† Like LONDOSA and Malta last year, I wanted to explicitly look at mental health in the workplace and questions drawn from my survey, the results of which I published in April last year, focusing on raising awareness and what can be done to support staff, especially the teachers.¬† Specific focus was on ‘factors which cause stress’, ‘signs of burnout’ and recognising mental health conditions from a list of possible symptoms. I also encouraged a discussion around the question of whether it was ever right to disclose a mental health condition to an employer up front or at interview. Often the answer to this is either no or it depends. I was pleased delegate, Jameela – see her tweet below – spoke up for challenging the stigma and encouraging a ‘normalisation’ of this by saying ‘yes’. The session was well received and a number of delegates spoke to me afterwards about it. As one delegate later commented by email:

“[the] session reinforced a feeling for me that I, as a manager, am pitifully unaware of the range of mental health issues that can affect my staff, and certainly do not possess the skills to be dealing with them in a way that benefits anyone ‚Äď teacher, manager, school or student. However, it is an area that I am getting more and more insight into these days as a few of my staff have shared with me issues that they themselves have been dealing with, successfully I am pleased to say. (I‚Äôve done little more than offer a sympathetic ear and some private time to talk).”

euk tweet 2

jameela tweet

I will be returning to this topic in Liverpool on 3 April when I will be giving a workshop aimed at employers within ELT. Liverpool Workshop

first slide 2

On Saturday, the audience was mostly teachers and the focus was more on individual wellbeing.¬† Again, drawing on questions from my survey, I invited participants to share their own tactics and good practices for staying well.¬† I purposefully started this session with this critical take on ‘wellbeing talk’¬†by Paul Walsh, before looking at definitions, theories of wellbeing taken from positive psychology and tips.¬† Again, a number of delegates shared their own experiences and chatted to me afterwards about their own particular context.¬† My inspiration and basis for this talk was Sarah Mercer’s recent webinar for Macmillan Education ELT and I was interviewed by them about this afterwards. Interview to follow soon. I’ll add the link when it’s live.¬† In the meantime, there is this promo about their Language Hub launch.¬† See if you can spot me.

euk tweet 1

euk tweet 3

Conference organiser Tom Weatherley said on LinkedIn:

Wowzers, what a couple of days at the Academic Conference! It was great fun, and initial feedback is excellent. Thanks to everyone involved with excellent sessions across the board, including (apologies to those missed out) Josh Round Anita Wynne Anne Margaret Smith Philip Longwell Chris Farrell Silvana Richardson Vic Richardson Gavin Dudeney Nicola Lutz Ruth Hughes James Hilton Yvert de Souza and many, many more. eukconference (photos by David Rose photography)”

BrazTesol Mental Health SIG Webinar

On Saturday 27 October I took part in my first proper Facebook Live. It was a webinar for the BrazTesol Mental Health Special Interest Group.¬† In this webinar I drew upon the research that I did last December and which I have subsequently spoken about at conferences and in workshops.¬† I plan to do more in the future.¬† These kind of webinars act as a stepping stone from moving the discussion on from merely talking about the research to offering advice and solutions in the workplace. It is not country specific, although I do make reference to the backdrop in the UK, not least my involvement with the mental health charity, Mind, and the Time To Talk campaign, which aims to reduce or eradicate stigma and discrimination.¬† I am a so-called ‘champion’ and registered on the Time To Talk website.

You can watch the full recording below, minus the introduction.  It is also available on the BrazTesol Mental Health SIG Facebook page, where it had almost 1,000 views in the first 24 hours, thanks to a significant number of shares. It starts properly around 20 seconds in.


Digital Tools for Young Learners

This is a summary of an #ELTchat which took place on 17 October 2018.  @angelos_bollas suggested the topic as he had just come back from the 7th ELT Malta Conference where the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group (YLTSIG) had a prominent strand.  I was there, too, and being a committee member of the Learning Technologies Special Interest Group, I thought I would be well suited to write this summary.  It is the 14th summary I have written for #ELTchat and the others can be found from the tab at the top of my blog.

Angelos stated that when he taught Young learners, digital tools were not a thing, so the whiteboard was the only tech he used.¬† Likewise, @Teacherphili said that when he taught young learners in Tanzania and South Korea, digital tools were not really a thing.¬†@SueAnnan¬†asked whether we even needed technology with young learners. Why not let them just be kids, she suggested.¬†Phil¬†replied that they can still be kids, but with devices.¬†Angelos stated that he thought kids nowadays are attached to technology – he wasn’t sure if this is positive or not but that he thought it is simply a reality.

Runna Badwan

It was the first ever #ELTchat for  from Ramallah, Palestine.  It is always good to hear from some new people.  She has recently been involved in the Hands Up Project, which she says has been a great experience so far. She does weekly one-hour lessons with a group of girls living in zaatari refugee camp. They use zoom, which requires very little bandwidth so that helps keep the connection problems down to a minimum.

Runna stated that she think kids expect tech these days. It can be as simple as using Quizlet for vocabulary or Class dojo for a rewards system. Tech can also be used to connect students/classrooms from around the globe as an alternative to traditional pen pals.

Runna Tweets

Angelos asked whether this was difficult to manage. Unless there is a specific platform which is safe, right?  Runna replied that there are options like depending on the level of the students. also tries to connect classrooms sometimes. I think it depends on how you do it and you have to get parental permission of course. Angelos and Phil both stated that it was a great initiative, involving storytelling, young learners, a worthwhile cause and they need more teachers to get involved.

@natibrandi¬†stated that she thinks that kids expect games! A good old plemanism, may be just as effective as Quizlet. The key is keeping them busy and interacting with the language, they don’t want to just sit and listen. Runna agreed totally with this. She thinks it is about balance between using technology and some tried and true activities, before adding that¬†¬†is a tool that she recently learned about. You can add questions to videos to check their understanding as they watch.

Digital tools used with YLs must be suitable for their age group, stated ‘Free Spirit’ chatter a.k.a.¬†.¬†¬†Angelos asked for clarification on this. ‘Classdojo’ for classroom management & ‘storybird’ for teaching writing,¬†replied @teachingright. They are easy and suitable for them.¬† In addition, Animoto and Kahoot!¬†Teachers can create puzzles or any interesting game for kids. Animoto is an app that they could use to create wonderful videos.¬†An app called ‚ÄėChwazi Finger Chooser‚Äô was also suggested – in an observation by @teachingright the kids like it and can help with classroom management.

@sergiolm21‚ÄŹ (Sergio Lorca)¬†said that he sometimes uses Plickers¬†to review at the end of his lessons. He really likes it because the students don‚Äôt need to have a mobile device, and also they keep a scoresheet with the answers. Genially is another tool which can be used both for young learners to use in class and for teachers to help with their preparation. You can create a gamification (board game, escape game, etc), work a specific skill or topic and use it in class, he added.

@natibrandi stated that she thought that the traditional ‘I teach – you listen’ model does not work at all with Young Learners, which is why rather than thinking about what we’ll do, planning lessons based on what they’ll do!¬† A¬†good one is Lyrics Training.¬† Some kids love listening to songs, and they can get exposure and practice … also dubsmash, excellent to mouth the perfect pronunciation, and see it very much as a physical thing. Runna added that her students love this site. One person can type and the others shout out the lyrics as they listen, she stated.

Nati Gonzalez Brandi Tweet

My problem with tech in the Young Learner class, stated¬†@natibrandi is that she sometimes find it leads to dead time, and dead time causes behaviour issues in class… the dead time, whilst you set things up, or when problems with wifi arise.¬† Runna¬†replied that¬†is true. She has not taught young learners in nearly a year but used to try to have things set up beforehand or while they‚Äôd be working on something else.¬†Nati added that¬†she did not think it counts as an app, but going round the school, taking a photo of (something related to a project), come back and describe it until the others guess, things that keep all the students busy, I reckon work best, and this does not always happen with some tools. Basically,¬†good old information gaps, but using technology to enhance use and meaning.

¬†chipped in with a comment that ‘Technology as a means and not as an end. The curricula should be better adapted, both in primary and secondary levels.’ Angelos wondered if¬†anyone present who argues against Digital Tools with YLs? Some of you discussed Tech as a means, not an end but what about ‘no tech at all’?¬† Nati replied that she¬†loved having moments of no tech at all.. “I’m not saying that’s the way we should teach.. but a few classes with no tech at all… with good all games like spongy letters, a nice board race, grass skirts, and genuine unplugged fun, is something I love.. good old games.”¬† wouldn‚Äôt argue against it but “if I am asked to teach in a school where there is not even 1 PC available to teachers then of course I‚Äôd argue against it! Also if you have the tools there may be little value if they‚Äôre not used safely.”¬† Meanwhile, ¬†stated that it “depends on how young the learners are. Under 7 then none at all is a good move. 7 – 10 only limited. 10 – 12 tightly controlled.”

Angelos asked whether using the affordances of their own tech (in this case their smartphones) is also useful. Do young learners have smartphones, though, he wondered. Nati replied that in Argentina, they do, and in my context (mid upper class) those who don’t, have an Ipod. The school could also have sets of tablets… sometimes more effective than interactive boards because actually these can be used to keep students interacting with the language and occupied. Angelos replied that he believed¬†using the school’s tablets is much more effective and, possibly, safer for our students. Nati agreed, saying ‘Definitely!’ Her school doesn’t have tablets nor interactive boards… not even good wi-fi! but she does use her students’ devices… now if you have tablets… that’s heaven, she concluded.¬†It‚Äôs also important to spend time setting rules around their use and checking their settings first, added Runna.

Taking photos and that kind of thing is really useful, stated Runna. You can also make a scavenger hunt. Give them a list of things to search for and they take pictures of the things they find, which Nati loved the idea of.

has recently given a talk on this too, according to Nati, and she knows that she has been working with augmented reality and other projects. Phil knew this, too, and offered a webinar recording that Vicky did for Cambridge University Press on digital tools in the young learner classroom.

Vicky Digital Tools

Long after the ‘slowburn’, Vicky added a¬†few of her favourite tools for YL: (1) Book Creator on PCs and mobile devices to create digital books. Images, text and audio possible. (2) Speaking avatar creators: Voki, Plotagon, MyTalkingAvatar Free, BuddyPoke. (3) A video wall with for multiple uses! (4) Word clouds with ABCya Word Clouds (no registration required)

Phil shared some apps, such as Learn School Words, and Animal Sounds for Kids, which were suggested, outside of the chat, by , which are listed below. He also made a reference to a recent session by Gary Motteram on teaching English in challenging circumstances, including Zaatari Refugee camp in Jordan.

Animal Sounds

Institutional support can come in many forms. From training to actual devices and upkeep of the devices. But what about safeguarding and child protection? asked Angelos.   It should be the role of the institution to put the proper procedures in place, make sure teachers fully understand them, that they’re communicated to parents and students, according to Runna. Sergio agreed that with the view that technology can be way to communicate with parents. In his school we are using Telegram in order to inform the families. From the school we send info to them but they can not answer, it’s one way.

Jen Dobson Tweet

Like Vicky Saumell,¬†@jenjdobson¬†added some very useful comments in the after chat ‘slowburn’.¬†To begin with #safetyfirst should be the mantra for any online work, she stated, in fact any work, with Young Learners. There are some recommendations on the IATEFL YLTSIG page here.¬†Once you are aware of the potential dangers then look at tools and apps with safeguarding in mind.¬†Can add some of the ones I used during the ELT Malta council conference during the course of the day if you like? The talk was for Early Years, but they all work for all Young Learners. @teachingright¬†already mentioned Class Dojo.¬† I love using the Class Story section. This can provide a ‚Äėwindow to the class‚Äô through generating safe codes for parents/caregivers without the need for any shared mail accounts.¬† is another fabulous tool. You can create a game with learners¬†safely and collaboratively. Try getting older learners to teach the younger ones.

Angelos commented towards the that it is very encouraging to see teaching Young Learners getting the attention it deserves! It was a great chat which took a little while to get going, as a lot of them often do, but by the end we had quite a good number of resources.  Here are all the links shared in relation to this chat:

EdPuzzle and Lyrics Training РRecommended by Runna Badwan.

Storymaker РA recording of an OLLReN session by Dr. Vanita Chopra & Harsha Jaisinghani who demonstrated how they used Storymaker in India with Young Learners.

Teaching in Zaatari Refugee camp – A recording of Gary Motteram’s session at OLLReN.

‘Using technology with young learners’ – A post on the Cambridge University Press blog by¬†Sedef Ko√ß.

Penfriends – Recomended by Nati Gonzalez Brandi.

Genially and Plickers. Recommended by Sergio Lorca.

TinyTapit, recommended by Jen Dobson.

Voki, Flipgrid, Padlet, and ABCya Word Clouds recommended by Vicky Saumell.

Learn School Words, Animal Sounds for Kids and First Words for Baby, suggested by Raquel Ribeiro.

‘Digital tools in the young learner classroom’ – a webinar by Vicky Saumell for Cambridge University Press.

The Hands Up Project

10 Best ESL Games for English Teachers Abroad Рshared later by 

A couple of chatters shared this upcoming event on 4 November put together by the YLTSIG.¬† I’ll be joining in, not as a speaker, but as a viewer.¬† I can recommend it.

7th ELT Malta Conference Workshop

2018-10-13 07.13.23

I have just returned from Malta where I gave my first overseas presentation at the 7th ELT Malta Conference: Multiple Perspectives in ELT.  It was my second time in Malta, having attended the previous event, organised by the ELT Council, in Floriana. The plenary speakers were Katherine Bilsbrough, Fiona Copland, David Valente and Gail Ellis.  Other speakers included Mark Hancock, Laura McWilliams, Angelos Bollas, Cathy Salonikidis, Helen Chapman, Amanda Davies, Alan Marsh, Agnieszka Dudik, Agnieszka Dzieciol-Pedich, Pamela Borg, Jen Dobson, Dragana Andric, Kevin Spiteri, Chris Walklett, Alex Warren, Elena Grodzievskaya, Annie McDonald and inspiring ELT Professional Award winner, Marielou Mifsud.

There was an excellent pre-conference event which had the theme of LGBTIQ+ issues, with presentations by Thorsten Merse, David, Angelos and one token ‘straight’ person, Katherine, although she did arrive with her self-described ‘lesbian art critic’ hairstyle.

The IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group had a prominent strand at the conference, as did the Learning Technologies SIG last year. I wholeheartedly recommend their upcoming 24 Hours around the world event.

It was World Mental Health day on 10 October and one of the resource sites I mentioned in my workshop – Mental Health First Aid England – published some new material for dealing with young people, with the #HandsUp4HealthyMinds hashtag. I posted my Q&A to my IATEFL webinar on the same day. When I took this photo I had just found that I had been referenced in a Masters Dissertation for the first time ever, as far as I know. The response I got to this ‘news’ on social media was great, especially coming from much more widely-published folk than me.

Something I didn’t refer to in my workshop in Malta was the links between homophobic behaviour and mental health. I had to ditch references to LGBTIQ+ issues as the PCE had covered it. But had I had more time I would have shared this post by @LizziePinard


An edited video recording of my workshop, which shows some of the slides, is below. I played ‘Venus and Mars’ by Wings, then ‘Venus’ by Bananarama, before I started. This is because I spoke in the ‘Venus’ room at the InterContinental hotel, while ‘Mars’ was the networking room next door.¬† Please watch it full screen or go to YouTube to see the slides more clearly. Scan the QR codes at the end of the video for more information on resources and about my research into this area.

Thanks to one of the fellow speakers and my conference best friend, Helen, for recording bits of the talk, and to the ELT council for such a well-organised event.


IATEFL Webinar Q & A

On 7 July this year I gave a webinar for the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.  There were several questions that came out of the webinar and I dealt with some of them at the end.  However, I had to write considered responses to them all and these have finally been published, to coincide with World Mental Health Day (10 October) on the IATEFL blog.  These are reproduced below.

Workshop title: Mental Health Awareness for Employers within ELT

The full recording of the webinar is only available to IATEFL members in the members only / webinar section of the site. If you would like to watch the recording, you need to be a member of IATEFL (find out how to join), but even if you’re not a member, you can read my answers to all of the questions and comments from those who attended the webinar.  I can also share this extract from the Q & A at the end.

I drew on my personal experience, the mental health training that I have undergone via the charity, Mind, and a recent large-scale piece of research that I carried out.  I asked for participants to contribute to the discussion by looking at the following questions:

This was my first IATEFL webinar, following a presentation I gave at the annual conference in Brighton on 10 April.  I had previously given a webinar on this topic for International House as part of their wellbeing series. In the same month, I gave a training workshop to Directors of Studies and Assistant Directors of Studies at a monthly meeting of LONDOSA. Some of the material used in that workshop was used again in this IATEFL webinar, mostly the focus on specific diagnosed mental health conditions.  I will be giving an amended version of this workshop in Malta on 13 October.

Lizzie Pinard attended the webinar and has written her own personal reflection on it.

Q1. How did you find the courage and the space for vulnerability to transform your own pain into a positive message for others?

A1. As I answered at the end of the webinar, I felt that this topic is close to my heart. I felt that I had something to contribute about an under discussed topic.  I began with my TaWSIG interview for Time to Talk Day in February 2017. I wanted to explicitly tackle Mental Health issues rather than being simply about wellbeing, although the two are inextricably linked. In terms of transforming my own pain, I have no hang ups any more about disclosure, but realise this is not easy for many. I find it cathartic to talk about this and feel that I have inspired others to open up.

Q2. What conclusions do you draw to the first question? Or your own personal take?

A2.  Although I would love the situation to change so that we could get to the point of potential employees being able to disclose a mental health condition up front or in an interview, I think at the moment this is unrealistic.  An ELT employer is still more likely to choose a candidate without a disclosed condition over one that hasn’t. At the moment, both sides would have reservations and there are so many different teaching contexts and cultures. I sympathise with employers who want reliable teachers, but quite often a condition does not prevent a teacher from doing their job.  

In my own experience, I have done both.  I have held information back when I did not think it was worth mentioning Рbut I regretted that I didn’t say something as I could have been supported more.  Also, I have disclosed it up front and it helped the line manager be aware. It didn’t mean that support was given, but I felt better about the full disclosure.

Ultimately, I think it is a judgement call that the employee needs to make once they have been hired.

Q3. If many teachers are casuals, which is the case in Australia and many other countries, and there are no support services through HR, what are managers supposed to do? I can get some info as a manager, and I do have a Mental Health Aid Certificate and registration for 3 years, but I do not feel confident to use my modest knowledge. What would you recommend?

A3. You‚Äôre right that many teachers are casual, where it might be difficult to get to know them. Australia was mentioned by respondent no.290 in my survey, firstly on the question about causes of stress: ‚ÄúJob insecurity (in Australia), marking load, failing students, lack of recognition or reward, taking on problems that students disclose‚Äô. ¬†Secondly, in the question about what employers can do: ‚ÄúChanging the nature of the industry in Australia, by providing more contract(s) and less casual work.‚ÄĚ

Job insecurity seems high in Australia. Temporary contracts in ELT rarely come with protection or employee rights. This can benefit the employee, but often the symptoms of poor mental health will go undetected and teachers will be unsupported.  I’m interested that despite having a certificate and registration you do not feel confident. You do not have to be an expert. I don’t think it is realistic to have a fully-trained person in every organisation. If you can create a working atmosphere where these casual teachers can approach you with problems then it would be a start.  Being able to listen to employees non-judgementally is important, as the answers often lie within the employee not a line manager. The fear of reprisals often prevents disclosure, which can make things worse. So reassuring the employee that they are not about to lose their job or be put on leave can help.

Q4. Please give more information about OCD

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I was going to show a video about this during the webinar, but decided against it for reasons of time.  The video was made by OCD Action and I would recommend their website https://www.ocdaction.org.uk/ for finding out more information.

Q5. What’s the best strategy to take on bullying?

A5. Because I don’t have any specific experience of bullying I have let Kieran O’Discoll answer this question. He took part in my research and has written an extensive blog post on this, too.

‚ÄúDear Phil, Many thanks for your message. I hope you are keeping well. You are often in my thoughts and I salute your work in raising awareness of the stress teachers face, both from supervisors/colleagues and indeed from students themselves. My strategy when I faced severe bullying in my last school was to always stay strong in front of the aggressor. Though it deeply upset me, and he knew that, I always strove to defend myself staunchly to him, to defend the quality of my teaching, to point out the unfairness of his attacks. As you know, I eventually snapped, he fired me, after which I wrote my testimony on the ELT Advocacy blog. I also emailed him this article and sent him several other emails over the succeeding months to let him know that my article had garnered much support, but he didn’t ever respond. I considered taking an unfair dismissals case against him and let him know this also by email, again eliciting no response. If I had been in a bigger school such as my present college, with a HR department, I imagine I could have sought more in-house support but this bully was the owner of the school. I’ve been largely happy in my current third-level college teaching EAP. However, recently, I’ve unfortunately come under severe stress once again through some extremely difficult students – laziness and hostility towards their having to do EAP makes classes a huge uphill struggle, and it’s funny you should message me this week as I’ve been having huge stress and had been thinking of you and your work even this evening on my way home. One student who had been repeatedly leaving class very early had kept assuring me she had the school office’s consent, but when I eventually queried this with the office after becoming suspicious (she had submitted a plagiarized essay), I discovered she’d been deceiving me. However, she then confronted me aggressively and denied ever telling me she had the office consent – she told my employers she had thought I was personally allowing her to leave early, and she thus got me into trouble after I had accepted her lies in good faith. Her attendance determines her visa. So she jeopardized my future at this college, and asked to leave my class, though I’m just as glad she has left. But students can be really nasty towards the best and fairest of teachers, I’ve come to realise. Though I have some nice students, I find you always have to be so careful and watch your back with them. As for the lazy students, my Director of Studies has no interest, the ethos at this school is that nobody cares, it seems. This DOS has also been quite dismissive of me regarding the above student who hung me out to dry regarding her attendance deception. I don’t know what my future is though I’ve always given this school, as every other school, my level best, Phil. At least in this school there is HR and I’m in a union. But I put so much work and enthusiasm into my teaching, that it’s hugely upsetting and unpleasant when students show such bad behaviour, laziness, deception, hostility and academic dishonesty. I abhor dishonesty. One of my former colleagues is encouraging me to get out of teaching but I really need the income. Anyway, that’s my story, Phil. I wish you continued happiness and success and do keep me updated on your blog posts, please. I’d love to stay in touch and hope to meet you at some point. Many thanks. Kieran.‚ÄĚ

For more about Kieran’s story see this post.  

Q6. All you have mentioned is fine, but how to continuously support teachers and help them avoid stress, burnout etc

If you are a line manager or a person who is responsible for their employees‚Äô wellbeing then supporting teachers is paramount. ¬†Quite often the person responsible for a teachers‚Äô workload is not always the best person to help. But if you are in position where you can, then look out for the signs of mental distress. ¬†Although I covered some diagnosed conditions in the webinar, there are plenty of undiagnosed and common symptoms, some of which get hidden by the employee. Employers in ELT have a duty to make sure teachers are respected, looked after and given time off. ¬†Stress is normal and part of teaching. The pressures of the job can bring anxiety, but employees often have outside anxieties which affect their work. Creating an environment where teachers can raise concern without fear of reprisals is important. Obviously different contexts require different responses. ¬†Burnout often comes from dedicated teachers, being overworked, tending to be perfectionists or those who worry obsessively about getting things right. A good employer will recognise the human part of ‚Äėhuman resources‚Äô. There are lots of good posts out there about ‚Äėburnout‚Äô – one that I recommend is Roseli Serra‚Äôs: http://itdi.pro/blog/2017/10/13/burnout-in-elt/ in which she describes getting over the burnout syndrome.¬†Incidentally, the slide below on ‚Äėstress‚Äô is the one that failed to open correctly during the webinar:

Q7. What is grounding technique?

A7. Grounding technique is a method of dealing with a ‚Äėpanic attack‚Äô. Panic attacks can cause feelings of disorientation, so it can be helpful to ground yourself. Your mind may be telling you to flee, but try to stay where you are and bring yourself into the present moment. The technique requires the person to not only have their feet on the ground but to feel them touching it, holding onto something such as a steering wheel. Connecting to something solid and being aware of this can help focus the mind and return the sufferer to normal. ¬†Mindfulness practice can help, too.

Q8. Because of my current mental state I am fired at my school. When I go for a job interview I mainly struggle if I should talk about it or not. Can you give me some guidelines? What should I tell them, and what is not necessary for them to know? I’ve got borderline depression and have been quite suicidal last year. Should I tell them everything or can I just talk about my depression only?

A8. This is a little bit difficult to answer because I don‚Äôt know about your individual context. ¬†Clearly your condition has had an impact on your employment and now you are wondering how much to tell a potential future employer. ¬†In an ideal world, you would be able to disclose your condition up front or following a successful interview, but I realise that this is not always the best approach if you are working in a cultural situation that may still see depression as some kind of disabling issue which will impact on your ability to do your job. ¬†That last sentence is written with the employers‚Äô perception in mind – i.e. they might perceive that you will not able to do your job effectively enough or that you may have time off work etc. My guidelines would be to ‚Äėtest the water‚Äô and find out from ‚Äėhuman resources‚Äô (personnel) – if they have such a thing – what could be expected if you disclose your condition and/or previous experience. ¬†Remember that plenty of language teachers are able to do their job perfectly good enough, despite having symptoms of one condition or another. I have had many months of inactivity and no earnings due to depression in the past. After a while, I was able to return to work, first by volunteering, to regain confidence, and then by taking on a part-time position where I did not feel pressure to perform. Good luck!

Q9. What are some words the employer can say to comfort their employee?

A9. In the webinar I showed the ALGEE model.  The first step looks at worst-case scenarios. What you say to an employee once symptoms have been noticed or a problem has been raised will depend on the situation and the specific issues that the person is going through.  It might be temporary, such as a panic attack, or a more long-lasting anxiety. An employer’s or line manager’s role is to listen non-judgementally and reflect on what the person is saying, not to bring too much of your own opinions into the conversation.

You do not need to be medically trained to be able to give reassurance. Just recognise that something is happening and that the ‚Äėthreat‚Äô that the employee is perceiving will pass and that there is a way forward. ¬†Reassurance about work or workload will be contextual. The last two are recommended because the majority of line managers are not trained to deal with this.

Q10. It’s not common to have students (specially children) with some mental illness in the classroom, but I’m thinking in some scenarios like the Panic Attack in the middle of a presentation of a students. Can we apply this guidelines effectively in the classroom?

A10. If it‚Äôs you, then walk away. ¬†If you are able to, explain to the students that you need to speak to someone. ¬†If you are unable to continue teaching ask for someone – a senior teacher or line manager – to cover your class. Let me them know when you feel better and panic has subsided that you can still teach, but if there are causes which you can identify try to talk about them, if possible. If a student has one, then I would not force them to continue with their presentation but allow them to ‚Äėcalm‚Äô themselves down, with your help if this is possible. The main thing is to regain control of your breathing and deal with the physical symptoms first, before trying to talk about it. ¬†Students do experience some symptoms of some mental health conditions, most usually anxiety – over giving presentations – because of ‚Äėperformance‚Äô aspect or tests. This has been documented by those involved in testing, although I do not have a reference to hand.

Q11. How can we face unrealistic expectations from top officials? It is most time becomes so stressful..

A11.Unrealistic expectations is one of the biggest causes of poor teacher wellbeing. It can lead to burnout. ¬†I mostly think of the expectation by ‚Äėofficials‚Äô (employers) of student progression in a relatively short space of time. ¬†If possible, express your concerns to management. However, if every teacher is in the same situation, then managing stress is important, as a constant feeling of falling short of these expectations will impact on your own wellbeing, if you are a conscientious employee. ¬†Sharing stories and swapping notes with your teaching peers could help.

Q12. Shouldn’t all teachers have clear health insurance coverage wherever they teach, both for physical and mental problems? Teachers at commercial private schools have to demand that perhaps. What do you think? A teachers union is also an option for this.

A12. Speaking as someone from the UK, which has a National Health Service, I know that I am personally covered. It could be argued that mental health provision, support and funding does not have parity yet with physical health. It is an ongoing battle in the U.K. And I have been part of campaigns in this respect. When abroad there are plenty of countries where travel and health insurance are recommended. It is wise, but not compulsory in many situations. A teaching union is good and I think ELT Ireland are a great example of an advocacy organisation that protects teachers.

Q13. Do you know where we could access specific training on this topic, that employers might recognise and give us, for example, the role of being the designated person for staff members to talk to?

A13. It’s expensive. Mental Health First Aid England courses, in particular, cost a lot to do, even if the training you get would be second-to-none. I was advised not to call my webinar ‚ÄėMental Health Training for Employers‚Äô in case attendees thought that one hour and a certificate would make them suitably trained. Hence my truncated disclaimer at the beginning of it. I do think that having a designated person for staff members is a good. Some institutions are excellent. Just today I came across the University of Sheffield‚Äôs website in this respect. It champions and supports an open culture around this topic in the workplace. Having a designated or trained person in the workplace was one the main recommendations for employers that came out of my survey last year.

Q14. I used to teach in a country where there is political unrest, which affected all those who chose to stay in the country. In ELT contexts there, the teachers, students, administration and all were affected psychologically by what was going on. In this case, how can the mental health of teachers be taken care of?

A14. That question is very difficult to answer because so much depends on the situation, the country and what kind of unrest. ¬†I was teaching in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) when a lot of teachers were flown over from Libya because of unrest there. The ‚ÄėArab Spring‚Äô was taking hold. The thought that Riyadh was a more hospitable place than Tripoli struck me as very strange. ¬†But the British Council were flying staff out for their safety. In situations when there is political change, guidance needs to come from the employer and national embassies, as this goes beyond the psychology of staff.

Q15. I am not sure if it is safe for the teacher and students to have teachers with some of the problems you mentioned to be in the classroom. Is it? The Classroom can be a rather stressful place that may trigger further problems.

A15. This is something I personally think about a lot and requires a good answer. Yes, the classroom can trigger problems – it is a stressful occupation for many. ¬†Certain working conditions and coping with cultural expectations can add to the pressures. But most teachers are conscientious about what they do, most care and take things personally when things go wrong. ¬†I think it is important to point out that teachers with diagnosed and undiagnosed conditions can do a perfectly good job. The risk of suggesting that the classroom is not a ‚Äėsafe‚Äô place to be is that you continue to maintain the stigma associated with mental health. ¬†Obviously, if the teacher is either a danger to themselves, staff or the students then this should be taken seriously. That is why a greater understanding of conditions is required, as well as someone trained or a designated person who deals with this, not just a line manager. ¬†

Q16. Stamp on the spot?

A16. It is one of the suggested ways of distracting yourself and dealing with the physical symptoms of a panic attack.  Take care of the physical side first, before trying to talk about what is happening or what just happened.

Q17. What’s the title of the book – that was visible in the background during the webinar?

A17. The two books I showed were (1) ‚ÄėLanguage Teacher Psychology‚Äô – edited by Sarah Mercer and Achilleas Kostoulas and (2) A Beginner‚Äôs Guide to Being Mental – an A-Z: From Anxiety to Zero F**ks Given‚Äô by Natasha Devon. In the past I‚Äôve referred to Chris Eyre‚Äôs ‚ÄėThe Elephant in the Staffroom‚Äô, too, and I recommend the work of Matt Haig, too, amongst others.

My EAP summer #2

I have just completed another summer at INTO University of East Anglia.  I wrote about my experience last year in a longer post.   Induction week was back in June and all 425 students on the 12 week course received their final results on Friday 14 September.

I had a mild panic attack during the first staff meeting in week 12 (the weeks are counted down, not up, because of other 8-week and 6-week courses).  But other than that, I had no issues and coped well with the demands of the teaching. The organisation and structure of the course at INTO, University of East Anglia, was superb once again. Once again, I taught two Humanities and Science classes, rather than Business or Law students.  Once again, I lived on campus with several other teachers.  I taught Humanities C & D (shown below), which consisted of 31 students from mainland China, and one Saudi male.

2018-09-03 15.03.482018-09-03 15.07.58

This year, Research Skills were taught separately by another set of teachers, while there was a return to lectures on Wednesday afternoon for the students.  This seemed to make the workload easier this year, compared with last. Individual tutorials were still required outside of class time, but I managed this perfectly well, along with my fantastic teaching partner, Melissa.  Subject discussion classes were also introduced this time.  Initially the teachers led the discussion with an article or Ted Talk, with students gradually taking over this class towards the end of the course.  This year, I really made full use of Padlet with my writing class.  Both my planning and teacher talking time has been reduced.

Everything about this EAP course suits me, especially the location. Long gone are the days when I would struggle with workload or feel disorientated by living in another country.¬† It’s good to be in Norwich and I hope to properly move to the city very soon.

I will continue to be an IELTS invigilator with INTO on occasional Saturdays and have every intention of returning next year on the 12-week course.   Meanwhile, I have just started working again for Norfolk Community Learning Services, so not much of a break.  I do have a holiday and conference coming up in Malta, but a change is as good as a rest, anyway.

A selection of photos from the summer are below. In addition, there is a separate collection of photos from our class day trip to the North Norfolk coast in the final week.


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